Is it possible to write about the fall of the West Roman Empire without making it a lesson about your own day? Since at least Gibbon, that's been the reason for covering the final centuries of Rome's pre-eminence, and Adrian Goldsworthy's The Fall of the West is no exception.
What does make Goldsworthy's work different is that he attempts to tell the story of the empire in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, then draw the conclusions, rather than allow the explanation to infuse through the whole text, as was the case in one book I've recently reviewed, where the overconsumption of energy was the theory of choice.
Goldsworth has thus produced a rather old-fashioned narrative history – emperor follows emperor, usurper knocks out usurper, and the swirl around. That has its strengths – if you want to get the latest historical thinking on, say, the "end of Roman" Britain, Goldsworthy is drawing on the latest archaeology and thinking.
He's clearer than many in setting out the structure of late 4th-century Roman Britain, "a diocese under a vicarius based in London and responsible to the praetorian prefect. The diocese was subdivided into either four or five provinces…The Comes Britanniae commanded a force of comitatenses consisting of three infantry and six cavalry units…The Dux Britanniarum commanded units of limitanei, mostly stationed in the north and including the garrisons of some named forts on Hadrian's Wall. Finally, there was the 'Count of the Sexon Shore' controlling limitanei based around the east and south coasts."
On the vexed subject of the "Saxon invasion" (did it happen? did it involve significant numbers? were the existing populations pushed aside?) he's sensibly agnostic, noting that the academic fashion has swung, probably too far, towards denial. He challenges recent interpretations of "mixed" Saxon and Briitish cemeteries, noting "considerable caution needs to be used before assuming that a particular object automatically denotes someone of a particular race. Brooches were both functional and valuable. ..In the end brooches and belt buckles were there to hold up clothes more than to express identity."
This section is relatively analytical – and addresses one of those questions that history can't help worrying at – but the careful narrative approach in other sections can get rather monotonous and repetitive.
To take just a couple of pages: In March 238 the proconsul of Africa was proclaimed emperor, in resistance to the newish Maximus , who was too preoccupied in the west to deal with an attack by Ardashir a couple of years before. The Senate in Rome rejoiced, and accepted the usurper, but within weeks the governor of the neighbouring province had defeated his son and co-emperor in battle, and Gordian hanged himself. But the Senate couldn't go backwards, so selected two of their number, Balbinus and Pupienus, as co-emperors, and they were immediately forced to co-opt a third, Gordian's young grandson, aged just 13. Maximus got bogged down in fighting, then his troops killed him, but they didn't fancy the two senators either, and soon killed them too, leaving the teenager as titular head of the empire, to be married to the daughter of his Praetorian Prefect Caius Timesitheus, effective ruler. He died at age 19, either at the hands of the Persians, or his own troops after a defeat by the eastern enemy.
It might make a good board game, but it is hard to get interested in this fast-moving, if shortlived, cast of characters, about which we learn little. So while as a reference this is a handy book, it wouldn't be the best thing to take on a long train trip when seeking an engaging read.
So what of its grand theory? Well as you might expect from a narrative historian chiefly concerned with political history, it concerns political structures. Goldsworthy argued that the marginalisation of the senatorial class in the third century meant that the possible range of emperors, or usurpers, was greatly widened, and emperors had to fear practically anyone who got some sort of influence over some troops.
So, seeking safety, emperors divided civilian and military power, and divided provinces into smaller and smaller units. "This helped to protect an emperor against challengers, but made it far harder to get things done." Consequently, for significant challenges, emperors had to deal with them personally – and they couldn't be everywhere at once, so often problems were just left to fester.
Rising in the hierarchy also meant risks for bureaucrats and military commanders. A mere whisper of disloyalty, a word out of place, could mean death, or at best total disgrace, particularly for an able man. "Personal surviival and personal success and profit were the foremost aims of officials." Being seen to be too effective could be dangerous.
So Goldsworthy concludes: "The Late Roman Empire was not designed to be an efficient government, but to keep the emperor in power and to benefit the members of the administration. Many of these could enjoy highly successful careers by the standards of the day without ever being effective in the role that they were theoretically supposed to perform….This was not at root a moral failing. There had been plenty of selfish and corrupt individuals in earlier periods of Roman society, just as there have been in all other societies. The difference was that by the late empire it was difficult for them to behave in any other way."
Which is where we get to the current-day comparisons, particularly with the US.
"All human institutions, from countries to businesses, risk creating a similarly short-sighted and selfish culture. It is easier to avoid in the early stages of expansion and growth. Then the sense of purpose is likely to be clearer, and the difficulties or competition involve a more direct and obvious impact. Success produces growth and, in time, creates institutions so large that they are cushioned from mistakes and inefficiency…. Western states do not face enemies likely to overthrow them by military force. In the business world the very largest corporations almost never face competitors that are truly their equal….In most cases it takes a long time for serious problems or errors to be exposed. It is usually even harder to judge accurately the real competence of individuals and, in particular, their contribution to the overall purpose. Those in charge of overseeing a country's economy generally reap the praise or criticism made by their predecessors."
Interesting thoughts. I'm entirely not inclined to accept single-cause explanations for the fall of the Roman empire, but Goldsworthy certainly has identified something to offer as part of a more multistranded approach.